This past November, I attended “When Body Positivity Is Not Enough: Fat Liberation”, a panel presented by Sofia Perez with the help of the Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Mills College (Oakland, CA). Perez facilitated a discussion of fatphobia and the intersections at which it must be examined: race, (dis)ability, class, and gender. Perez created Fat At Mills (FAM) as part of her graduate project, leaving a legacy of support for those who identify as fat and may need assistance advocating for their needs and rights. The panel was hosted by Jezebel Delilah X (fellow Mills alum) and featured Dr. Elena Andrea Escalera, Irene McCalphin (aka Magnoliah Black), Ifasina (TaMeicka) Clear, and Timnah Steinman.
“There is been a blaring silence about fat liberation and oppression,” Perez says, “[I felt] this could be the key to a deeper critical analysis and understanding of why fat is a.) a feminist issue and b.) why fat oppression is an issue of social justice. It was important to me to see fat people who, for a number of reasons, are marginalized within the fat community. The panel represented fat people who are Black, biracial, poor, working class, genderqueer, and most of which would not be classified as a “small fat”. It means something that many fat liberationists, or what I would call Body Posi folks, are on the smaller side of fat.”
I respect anyone who identifies as fat and want them to feel at home within the movement. I hear Marie Southard Ospina when she feels erased as a smaller bodied fat activist. There is a place for “small fats” at the table, however sometimes it may be the kid’s table. It’s important to know where your privileges exist and allow the focus to be on those who are so often ignored by the medical-industrial complex and the true butt of jokes and advertising for diet culture. The difference between “body positivity” and “fat liberation” is that in my eyes, “body positivity” deals more with feelings and giving each other kudos when needed. “Fat Liberation” is here to save lives and advocate for the medical needs of those who are constantly dismissed by health officials. McCalphin, one of the speakers at Fat Liberation recounted a time in which doctors ignored her health complaints, insisting that she lose weight to reduce the discomfort. The recommendation steeped in fat shame and resulted in McCalphin’s doctors almost missing a growth. McCalphin was sick for months, perhaps years, because she was not getting the same health care as her thin counterparts. Who knows how many issues go untreated and how many fat people are dying because of this systematic fatphobia.
This is precisely why I say “Fat liberation or GTFO.” If you need more convincing, here’s 4 Reasons Why We Need Fat Liberation.
1. There’s little job security when you’re fat at work
The evening was full of profound anecdotes of oppression that had me and other audience members in tears. Irene McCalphin shared a tale of losing a previous job due to behaving exactly as her thinner counterparts behaved. I, too, have had this experience. I was in tears with both frustration and relief that it was not just me, that others are experiencing this. While it was a relief not to be alone and to know that I had a support system around me, it was infuriating to know that this was a systematic issue and not just imagined forces working against me. Another speaker, Ifasina Clear recounted a similar experience compounded by her unwillingness to conform to colonial beauty ideals while living in North Carolina and keeping her hair natural.
Both Steinman and Dr. Escalera spoke of being fat in the workplace, as well. Both are in the education field – Steinman a middle school teacher and Escalera, a professor of psychology. Escalera had been denied a raise because of fat, aggressive student feedback and has consequently been making less than her colleagues ever since that poor review. Steinman taught an audience member to include her activism on a resume, using their fat experience as a point of diversity and experience in being an ally that fat students can lean on. Escalera has since implemented behavioral procedures in which she addresses the fear within fatphobia and diffuses it, creating a less hostile environment for everyone in the classroom.
2. Fat people can’t be vulnerable
Clear also spoke of something I could also relate to which was the large, beautiful bombastic personalities of fat women in the south. I grew up between Florida and North Carolina, and the women that made me feel best about my large body were the beautiful, unapologetically fat, southern women. Clear brought up the other side of that coin: you could never be vulnerable. You had to be loud, fabulous, and bulletproof against society telling you that you were not beautiful. You had to proclaim your value and loudly demand to be seen and heard, but do so in coded language, referring to yourself as “thick,” “curvy,” “big boned,” or just a plain old “big girl.” These things are said in admiration, but no one wanted to own the word “fat” and drop its negative connotations.
3. Fat people need to be grateful for having a partner
McCalphin also spoke of the “grateful fatty,” something that I am all too familiar with but never had a name for. “The Grateful Fatty” is the fat woman that is grateful she has a partner. She picks up the crumbs. She may be a serial monogamist, bouncing from one partner to another, gaining her feeling of worth by being accepted and loved by another. She is the caretaker, the one that puts up with shit that no one should put up with. I have been The Grateful Fatty far too many times in my life, and I truly had to mull that one over for a full week. Do I put up with things in my relationship because of lack of self-worth? What kind of behaviors do I need to put a stop to in myself and in my partner – which behaviors are toxic and unacceptable?
4. Toxic relationships on body image aren’t limited to romantic partners
Toxic behaviors are not limited to romantic partners, as Dr. Andrea Escalera and Timnah Steinman pointed out. They both told tales of drawing a line in the sand for their parents, and sometimes having to cut people off completely. When Escalera graduated with her first degree, her mother told her what would make her REALLY proud would be if she lost weight. Then, the same thing happened after she received her doctorate. Her mother did not care that she had worked so hard – the only value that she saw was if her daughter was pretty in the way that she wanted her to be. My favorite quote from her was “My mother said go to college to marry a doctor. I must have misheard her and got my doctorate, instead.” Dr. Escalera straddled two different cultural identities, one side of her family deeply valuing her large body and celebrating it, whereas the other admonished her for it.